Arctic Climate Warming Twice as Fast As Anywhere Else
Prof. Subhankar Banerjee, Editor of “Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point,” talks about the effect President Trump’s climate policies will have on the Arctic and on the rest of the planet
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Arctic region is one of the most vulnerable on the planet when it comes to climate change. It is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Indigenous communities are having to relocate due to changes in the environment with melting permafrost and sea level rise. Barack Obama’s ban of oil drilling in most of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans at the end of his term was seen as a last ditch effort to lock in environmental protections before Donald Trump took over. In April, however, President Trump reversed that ban with these words.
DONALD TRUMP: Our country is blessed with incredible natural resources, including abundant offshore oil and natural gas reserves, but the federal government has kept 94% of these offshore areas closed for exploration and production. When they say closed, they mean closed. This deprives our country of potentially thousands and thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in wealth. I pledged to take action, and today I am keeping that promise. This executive order starts the process of opening offshore areas to job-creating energy exploration. It reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban.
SHARMINI PERIES: With us to discuss these issues facing the Arctic is Subhankar Banerjee. He is the Lannan Foundation Endowed Chair and Professor of Art and Ecology at the University of New Mexico. He is an artist, scholar, and activist. Subhankar’s exhibition, Long Environmentalism in the Near North, on Arctic conservation and indigenous rights will open at the University of New Mexico Art Museum on June 6th. Subhankar, good to have you back.
S. BANERJEE: Very good to be talking with you, Sharmini, again.
SHARMINI PERIES: Subhankar, let’s park what Donald Trump had just said, and if you could, give us a brief historical background on the political campaigns to protect both the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea of Arctic Alaska.
S. BANERJEE: First of all, you spoke about that the Arctic is warming at a rate of at least twice the global average. That is true. Arctic is what we call the bellwether of climate change, but there is more to that. The Arctic is what the National US Academy of Sciences has said is the integrator of Earth’s climate systems, both atmospheric and oceanic. If we further disintegrate the Arctic through more warming, it affects not just the Arctic but the whole Earth. This is very serious matter. It’s very dangerous.
That said, specific to President Trump’s comment on undoing President Obama’s Arctic offshore drilling plan, here is what happened. President George Bush actually opened up what we now call the second wave of Arctic offshore exploration in 2003. No development started because we filed several lawsuits. That process went on. Some seismic exploration did happen during the Bush era, but after President Obama came to office, he became a pretty strong supporter of Arctic offshore drilling throughout his presidency. We fought against that through various legal means, and we won twice in court.
Then right before leaving office, literally a month before leaving office, he used an obscure provision in the 1953, what is called, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to set aside 150 million acres of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas permanently protected. That particular law was actually used by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 to protect the Monterey Bay following the 1968 oil spill there.
No president has undone a previous president’s invocation of the OCSLA, but that’s what President Trump is trying to do. He hasn’t banned this. I want to clarify that. He’s trying to. On April 28th, he made the announcement, but soon thereafter on May 3rd, a coalition of the environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against Trump’s move. That lawsuit will move forward, and we are going to fight it out in the legal side. That’s the Arctic Ocean thing that the Trump has not won. We are going to fight it out in court.
The second one is the Arctic Refuge campaign, which truly is a biological, national, and international treasure and ought to be designated as a World Heritage Site from the United Nations, but instead the US government wants to turn it into an oil field, specifically the Trump administration. Last week, President Trump sent his budget proposal to Congress in which sneakily, not surprising but sneakily, included the language to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What’ll happen now, that Congress will take up, this is unlike the Arctic Ocean fight which is in a court battle. This will be more of a legislative fight, state to state, on the ground, all across the country.
What President Trump, the language he’s using, it’ll create thousands of jobs, it’ll give us energy security, are language pulled directly from the oil company lobbying that we already experienced all through eight years of the Bush administration. It’s nothing new. These are basically hyperboles and lies. That campaign will begin now to protect the Arctic Refuge. We defeated each and every one of President Bush’s proposals to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge during his eight years of presidency, and we will … Now the fight begins again. It’s a deja vu.
Over the last 30 years, there have been 50 attempts to open up the Arctic Refuge to drilling, but we have prevailed because the American public have wanted it to protect. Right now, there is a poll that came out from the Center for American Progress that found that more than two-thirds of the American public are opposed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and more than 50% are strongly opposed. I can later talk about why this place is so significant, both biologically speaking and the indigenous human rights issue.
SHARMINI PERIES: We’ll get there, but since we are following political leaders and what they have done in terms of the Arctic or the damage they’ve done, what happened during the Obama era and the Arctic seas? Now he’s coming out as the good fellow in the sense that he did try to protect drilling in the Arctic towards the very end of his presidency, whereas he could have actually done a lot more in the eight years that he was president to stop some of this but he didn’t. Give us a sense of your take on the Obama era.
S. BANERJEE: You know, after President Obama came in, he basically pursued and strongly supported President Bush’s Arctic offshore policy. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, I wrote an article called BP in the Arctic with a question mark for TomDispatch of The Nation Institute, which was very widely distributed. Subsequent to that, President Obama’s administration kept fast-tracking various permits for Shell, and as you remember, I kept writing for TomDispatch, for ClimateStoryTellers which I founded, kept giving interviews to The Real News Network and to Democracy Now! multiple times during the Obama years.
President Obama did actually support drilling in the Arctic seas all through his presidency, but in 2015, after we won a court battle in 2014 in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in 2015, he went ahead and gave all the permits to Shell to go drill. Shell went up there in September 2015, and after a disappointing exploratory drilling season, they abandoned their Arctic offshore program. The following year in 2016, like I said, a month before leaving, he used this OCSLA to end drilling 150 million acres. Now we are grateful for that, but it’s more protecting his legacy than what he did for the Arctic.
That said, I have to say though that President Obama did not pursue drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, primarily because the strong Democratic base would have opposed it anywhere. But what we had hoped from him was that he would use an executive order before leaving office, which was tried with President Clinton also, did not succeed. There was a lot of campaign with President Obama to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a national monument, but President Obama did not do that. He did it for the Bear Ears National Monument, which also President Trump is now trying to undo. President Obama’s Arctic policy, he was basically a pro-drilling advocate overall, that I would say, and we fought it.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Subhankar. Let’s move on to Trump. Now he’s trying to open up both the Arctic and the National Wildlife Refuge. As you stated, in his budget, he makes some of this possible as well. Give us a sense of the damage that is about to be caused on the Arctic as a result of what Trump is trying to do, as he said in that clip we played at the top of the show.
S. BANERJEE: It’s extremely reckless to really expand drilling in the Arctic, because as I said, the Arctic is the integrator of world’s, actual whole planet’s, climate systems. The farther we dig up more and more oil from the Arctic and then burn it, we actually destabilize the Arctic more and more. It’s extremely reckless. It’s extremely dangerous. We have to fight it on the ground all across the country and around the nation, come together to fight this. What Trump is doing is not surprising. This is what he promised during his campaign, and he’s kind of in a way following through his campaign, including he may potentially pull out of the Paris Accord. None of this is surprising, so we have to fight it.
The Arctic is, both the ocean and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, are incredible biological treasures. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most biologically diverse conservation area in the entire Arctic, and the Arctic seas of Alaska host one of the most biologically diverse and complex marine ecosystems, Arctic marine ecosystems, on the entire circumpolar Arctic.
These are biologically really national and international treasures, and indigenous communities, the Gwichʼin Nation, 15 villages across Alaska and across the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada, depend on the Porcupine River caribou herd for their … that actually calve, give birth, in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge where exactly Trump wants to drill for oil. They depend on these caribou, and they have done this for many, many millennia, is for their nutritional needs, their cultural identity, their spiritual identity.
This is a human rights issue for the Gwichʼin Nation. They’re fighting from a human rights point of view right now as you and I are speaking. Right now, about 200,000 strong Porcupine River caribou herd are in the coastal plain where drilling is proposed, and within the next 10 days, about 40,000 calves will be born where drilling is proposed. Right now as I’m speaking, three members of the Gwichʼin Nation, two from Alaska, one from Canada, are traveling through the Southwest where I live on a nine-event tour through four states, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. The tour started on May 18th in Tucson, Arizona where I attended, and will end on June 1st in Boulder, Colorado, asking people’s support to support their human rights campaign. This is both an ecological campaign. It is both a climate campaign, and it is a human rights campaign that we have to defeat Trump’s proposals.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. You mentioned the Paris Climate Accord. This looks like it’s going to be the biggest environmental disaster of Trump’s tenure in Washington, particularly because he’s up against some of the more liberal leaders of Europe, and even India and China are looking more concerned about the environment than the United States who should be taking up a lead in terms of these issues. What do you think of the withdrawal from the Climate Accord, what Trump is trying to do, and the implications of it?
S. BANERJEE: Well, as one of your previous guests pointed out, it’s more symbolic, because the Paris Climate Accord is … In symbolic, it’s a good thing that all 195 nations have signed it, and there is an intention, but it’s all an intention. Each of those contributions, each country decided what to do. It’s not really legally binding to begin with, and what Trump is doing is not a surprise again, because he is trying to turn the United States into a all-out fossil fuel capitalist state, all-out fossil fuel. He’s doing under no guise. Like Obama was trying to do some of these things with nice rhetoric, he just wants to do it all-out. He wants to sell the country to Big Oil and Big Coal, and we have to fight that.
That said, if you look at right now the energy, US Energy Information Administration website, what you will find is that when President Obama took office, US combined production of oil and gas was almost at par with Russia, little bit less. By 2012, US had already exceeded Russia and Saudi Arabia in combined oil and gas production, and as of 2015, far exceeded Russia and Saudi Arabia in combined oil and gas production. US is already the largest producer of fossil fuels on Earth.
What Trump is trying to do, on top of that, is to really revive the coal industry on top of all of the few areas of oil that Obama may or may not have tried to protect. He’s trying to open it all up. It’s all-out fossil fuels capitalism that’s going on under the Trump, including probably what he wants to do is rapid expansion of coal in the Appalachia, which is extremely environmentally destructive as you know, mountaintop removal all through the Appalachian Mountain and you can only see the destruction from the air. I’ve been working in the Arctic that few American of the public know that Arctic holds the largest coal deposit of North America. There is an estimated 4,000 ton of bituminous coal in the Western Arctic of Alaska. Not all of it is technically or economically recoverable, but that will supply in theory 4,000 years of coal for US consumption at the current rate.
It’s very, very dangerous if Trump tries to revive the coal industry, but that said, the oil and the coal lobby runs US government and Trump is their chosen man in a way. We have to fight on the ground all across the country and come together. Of all the Paris Climate Accord and all of that, on a top-down approach, sounds good on paper, but the real fight has to happen on the ground. This is really something we have to mobilize all across, because this is the future of life on Earth.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. With that, heavy words, I thank you so much for joining us today, Subhankar.
S. BANERJEE: Thank you. Thank you, Sharmini, for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.